Monday, July 20, 2015

Blue Hill NY

Dan Barber has taken "Farm to Table" to the highest possible level of culinary achievement. Maybe your local restaurant sources eggs and bacon from local farmers, but Chef Barber is working with Botanists at Cornell University to breed blithe resistant cucumbers and giving lectures on "cultivating flavor." If a strong positive argument exists for GMO experimentation, this is it. This is not Monsanto. This is sustainable engineering. And everyone is noticing, from the TED conference to the Michelin Guide and The James Beard Foundation, Harvard, and all the way to the President where Dan serves on the Council for Physical Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition.

The dining room is stuffy and small.  To be perfectly honest, I wasn't much a fan of the atmosphere. I expected a rustic, “earthy garden” agenda. I wanted old wooden tables and gardening tools and plants growing out of the walls, a casually dressed staff, and a light atmosphere. But this is all white tablecloth, fancy pants, and very formal. Honestly, it’s a bit stagnant. A friend later suggested that the whole point might be to show that hard work and farming is right on par with any other white-tablecloth restaurant out there. A good thought, but I wonder if it has more to do with accolades.

But oh my, the food. I can forgive almost any other issues (we found Blue Hill to be slightly lacking in the service department) for food like this. I start with the Once in a Lifetime Blue Hill & Stillwater Artisanal Ale, a gargantuan beast of a beer. It's excellent and has a strongly refined taste for a 7.4% craft. We choose the Farmers Feast tasting menu. A surprisingly fresh radish with white chocolate arrives to start the meal, followed by some excellently cured meats. Yellowtail flounder with corn and fava beans, an expertly crafted salad with fresh fruit and greens, a cast iron farm fresh egg with mixed greens and potatoes, a succulent fatty pork dish, a blueberry dish with honey and milk, deconstructed chocolate covered cherries, fresh apricot, the dishes keep coming and coming and you wonder if it's ever going to stop. This is the poster child for farm fresh. How do simple dishes have such refined and bold flavors? Every step of the process is controlled by the Chef, literally from the ground up.

Anyone interested in farming, sustainable food culture, biology, or anyone that enjoys the works of a dedicated and brilliant master, Blue Hill NY is a must. Book in advance and be prepared to spend some money, but go, as soon as you can. His larger and more experimental restaurant and farm called Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Tarrytown is on the list for my next trip to New York. From everything I can tell, that's where he does the real work.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Pok Pok NY

Chef Andy Ricker has captured the very essence and soul of Thailand's vast and exciting cuisine, and put it right in Brooklyn. The dining room buzzes with activity. It's apparent right away that the staff are extensively familiar with the menu, the bar, and the flavors. Their sense of pride in their work prepares you for the treat that awaits you. The dining room is cramped and small, just like it would be in Thailand. The well deserved Michelin Star hangs joyfully on the wall between the bathrooms.

I start with a watermelon and cachaca cocktail with muddled mint and lime. It's excellently refreshing and well refined. Perfect after the hot NYC streets. It IS a bit of a haul to Western Brooklyn (especially when train construction cuts out the closest two stops) to get out to Pok Pok, but it's well worth the journey. My Yam Samun Phrai arrives with a packet of sticky rice and i'm transported right back to my time in Chiang Mai and Northern Thailand. Shrimp, cashews, lime, carrots, parsnip, betel leaf, lemongrass, basil, shallots, white turmeric, and pork in a coconut milk sauce served as a cold salad.  By the third bite, my nose is running from the cold spice of the dish. My taste buds are confused and alive and screaming for more. This is the intensity that Southeast Asian food culture is so well known for. For old times sake, I finish my meal with a cold Chang beer. My only regret is having to go alone. Pok Pok is set up more as a communal sharing restaurant, a place to enjoy a good meal with friends and family. I would have preferred having less quantity and trying more dishes. But going alone is much better than not going at all. 

If you want to go to Thailand, but you only have an hour or so, If you can't afford the plane ticket, or don't have time to sit in the air for 20 hours, Pok Pok just might give you the fix you need. At Least for a little while. 

Monday, July 13, 2015

Bar Masa NYC

I've been meaning to start this for a long while. Thoughts that no one would ever care to read about what I think of food, or that I have zero culinary training, or that I'll seem like a self-rightous, self-indulgent glutton are not big motivators. But I guess you have to start somewhere. If anything, it will be a memory exercise for myself. So many meals are gone with the past now, meals i'll never remember again. Maybe I can hold on to the special ones a little bit better by writing it all down.

And what better place to start than arguably the best food city on earth? New York City. Over 24,000 eating establishments. Where to begin?

Bar Masa, that's where. If you're going to be self indulgent, this is a pretty good place to start. And you're in luck! This is the "cheaper" and "more accessible" version of Masa Takayama's three Michelin starred flagship just down the hallway. The Chef's fervent attention to detail and style is apparent immediately. The bar in question, a single slab made entirely from African bubinga wood, is a work of art all on its own. I can't imagine how much it cost, or how hard it was to transport up to the 4th floor. The dining room is spotless, elegant, and simply decorated.  Any corner of the establishment could pass the most stringent of white glove tests. A calm feeling envelops you. These people are experts. You are in good hands. My cocktail sets the mood perfectly.

The sharply dressed bartender addresses me. "The sashimi is coming now." A few moments to prepare. My sashimi tasting arrive. I don't want to disrupt its elegant presentation. For a second atleast... And then i'm shipped off to a new world of complex flavors and textures. The Shiitake mushroom side is a perfectly smokey palette cleanser. But then it's all just...gone. It's all gone, just that fast. And you feel like you're back in Vegas, knowing that just one more hand...just one more hand and you'll win it all back.

The problem? Here you win every time. Without fail. This is where you need self control. Maybe your kids don't need to go to college that bad... Only two more rounds. You can't come here and NOT have the Uni. 

And then just as easily as you sunk in, you're back out in the world. And your life is a little bit better.

Don't go hungry and you might escape without a second mortgage. But it's worth every cent. Next time, i'm going to the Masa down the hall. I just HAVE to know how it could be that much better.